BWW Review: Orwelian ONERUS Sets New Standard for Sci-Fi Dinner Theatre at Café Nordo

BWW Review: Orwelian ONERUS Sets New Standard for Sci-Fi Dinner Theatre at Café Nordo
Madison Jade Jones in Onerus at Cafe Nordo
Photo credit: Bruce Clayton Tom

The intensely immersive experience of dining at ONERUS is perfect for fans who love and respect well-written sci-fi. Directed by Erin Brindley, this thoughtful, thought-provoking cautionary tale is science fiction at its finest (and the food ain't half bad either).

Dreams are a commodity for the wealthy, and are only accessible by a service provided by Onerus, an organic dream supplier. Dreams are extracted from criminals and put into "the drift" (sort of 2028's version of iCloud). In this version of the future, everyone has a "sync" chip inserted into the back of their necks. Even in people's own heads, there is no privacy. All thoughts are uploaded from the sync chip into the matrix, and those that live off the cybergrid are criminals, specifically called deviants.

Deviant 842 (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) was once called Jonathan. He's imprisoned alongside Deviant 637 (Madison Jade Jones), in separate isolation, though they are permitted to communicate with one another when the folks at Onerus feel like observing them.

Meanwhile, worker bee Viewer Iris (Opal Peachey) works alongside her supervisor, Director Trey Crick (José Amador) to extract dreams from deviants. Not too long ago, a beloved, veteran Viewer named Tristan died mysteriously, and Viewer Iris is determined to find out why. Congressperson Hall (Sharon Barlo Gouron) drops a bomb on Onerus when she warns Crick and Iris of Onerus' impending trial. Onerus runs the risk of being permanently shut down by congress for inhumane practices.

Who is sympathetic in this situation? On one hand, the technicians at Onerus are profiting off of non-consenting prisoners' dreams--a process of extraction which seems very exhausting, submissive, and painful. On the other hand, the higher-ups at Onerus' (potentially more evil?) rival company revel in Onerus' obliteration, scoffing at Onerus' out of date technology. On the other, other hand, CFO Dement (Heather Revfem) of the rival corporation acknowledges Onerus' practices to be unethical, and calls them out on it. This David and Goliath story of one powerhouse conglomeration taking over a smaller business normally makes choosing sides easy. But in this case, it's not that simple. CFO Dement may smugly laugh at Onerus' inevitable obsolescence, but she's not wrong when she says that Onerus' practices are inhumane. Neither party is entirely in the right, or in the wrong, creating a gripping narrative and great character development.

As professional Iris, Opal Peachey is keen, and shows the most character development. Richard Nguyen Sloniker's portrayal of regular-guy Jonathan is stoic and a little gritty. Contrasted with Deviant 637 aka Brook. Madison Jade Jones is unwaveringly optimistic (but in a way that feels forebodingly fleeting). Evan Mosher's Viewer Tristan Orlinsky feels almost mystically methodical. José Amador's Director Trey Crick means business, and is very cut and dry. Sharon Marto Gouran's Congressperson Hall packs a punch, especially when she relishes delivering bad news. As lacky, robotic Dexter, Devin Bannon incorporates some unexpected comedy. Heather Refvem's CFO Dement is wealthy and, well, demented. And it's great.

This menu looks science-fiction-y and tastes delicious. There's a stuffed cabbage that looks like an alien body organ, bright purple and veiny. The main course is a stew, hidden beneath a sheet of elastic rice paper. Spooning stew into your mouth, the stretchy, gooey top layer pulls back. The perfect marriage of gross and sophisticated yields a delightful (and believable) posh meal of the future.

BWW Review: Orwelian ONERUS Sets New Standard for Sci-Fi Dinner Theatre at Café Nordo
Devin Bannon and Sharon Barto Gouran in Onerus
Photo credit: Bruce Clayton Tom

Audience members are treated like the very elite who pay to vicariously experience dreams. No coffee or caffeinated beverages on this menu (literally, when I tried to order a coffee, I was cryptically refuted anything of the sort)-every drink, every component of this meal is meant to sedate and cleanse. How dark, as we, the beau monde, dine on beef carpaccio while prisoners wither away at the back of the dining room. It's a stark contrast, but does not ruin the taste of the food.

The little details in the physical world created in Café Nordo go above and beyond. Every hanging light buds with the same crystals on each table's centerpiece. The officials working at Onerus all wear similarly androgynous, nondescript outfits with slight variety, but upon closer inspection, the coats and vests are all imprinted with the same hexagonal pattern found in the floor tiles, on the television screens, and in the On?rus logo. Even Iris' hair has hexagonal shapes shaved into the back of her head.

The eeriest part of this performance is how not-so-far into the future it takes place. The plausibility of near-future makes the tale feel that much more ominous, and makes for specificity harder to incorporate into a narrative. Though it's clear that cognitive independence is still generally considered to be a human right, it's not too much of a stretch for human brains to be literally plugged into the internet at all times. It's a bit of a stretch, vis-a-vis 1984, but it feels inevitable. Inevitability makes for good, smart science fiction.

One caveat--Brook's motivation was confusing to me. She willingly imprisons herself because she has a personal connection to the technology. But how did she find this very private club? Her explanation of having just knocked on the door seemed a little too convenient. It also does not make sense for Iris to have not realized when Onerus was doing some really shady, nefarious stuff with the deviants when 1) everything about the setup feels shady from the start and 2) she had been working at Onerus for nearly two decades. Could she really have been so blinded by science to overlook the moral consequences of On?rus' work? She's too smart to think the business is legitimate.

If elevated, science-fiction dinner theater existed before "Onerus", Café Nordo sets a very high standard for this genre moving forward. For this thought-provoking and ominous story (complimented with a playful menu), I give Café Nordo's cerebral "Onerus" a geeked-out A. It's aesthetically, narratively, and gastronomically awesome.

"Onerus" performs at Café Nordo through November 19th, 2017. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.cafenordo.com.

*Update 9/28/17 1:17PM: Erin Brindley directed Onerus, not Opal Peachey

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